Thursday, May 20, 2004

Warning the below is very long winded, long taled & long in the tooth, and maybe even a little food snobby (the word "excellent" is used excessively). Read at your own risk.

Saturday - morning
We're passing over the desert now. It's a strange view from the plane. I've never seen the western U.S., and this height makes it all the more drastic of a change. At some points, it's rocky and worn, like the veiny hands of a very old man. Other times, like now, gyometric shapes are sprawled out in mammoth proportion over the landscape. They're obviously manmade, but I can't discern their purpose. All of it is very stark and more than a little imposing.

It's now 530pm their time, 830pm ours and we've just arrived at the hotel. I'm not feeling any noticable jet lag, other than I have a headache and am damn hungry (and, as such, pretty irritable..Genevieve just got done with probably just the first time she'll call me an asshole during this trip. ) She's registering at the conference now. After that, we're going out to get some food.

Saturday - Dinner
As it turns out, we didn't have to wander far for dinner tonight. Our hotel, located right on the waterfront, is just blocks away from what's referred to as the "Gaslight District." Our first impressions of it were not the best. As we entered into it, there were a couple double-decker buses going through the streets and the top deck of each was packed to the brim with hooting and hollering frat boys, screaming at women and yelling nonsensical, more than a little ape-like, calls. There were tons of restaurants though, so our hungry stomachs led us farther in. We ended up stopping at a restaurant called "The Lime", which claimed to serve Neuvo Latin food. Honestly, I couldn't really find anything neuvo about it. Their menu was a virtual list of standard Mexican-American fare. Beef Barbacoa burritos, corn tamales and quesadillas were the name of the game here. On the upside, the corn tamales were vegetarian (actually, Genevieve's asking if they were was met with a "yes" so dripping with "of course, isn't it obvious", we were once again reminded that this *is* California, the birthplace of American vegetarism.) Okay, so how was it? Actually, pretty good. Granted, they relied too much on cheese for flavor, especially for people like Genevieve and I, who are used to using it sparingly. But, it was all well prepared and well presented and, after a long day, downright welcome. Their corn tamales were creamy and flavorful, while my beef burrtito was chock full of spicy punch. Overall, I wouldn't go back, but after so much travel, it was perfect comfort food.

Sunday - the day
Well, it turns out we hadn't adjusted to the new time zone as well as we thought. Genevieve woke up this morning at 545 (normally an event which would signify the coming apocolypse). So, we got an early start on the day. Breakfast was room service a bowl of possibly the blandest oatmeal I have ever eaten on this earth and a plate of french toast that wasn't much better. After breakfast, we walked the boardwalk for the bit and enjoyed the beautifully mild California weather.
As it turns out, there was a new farmer's market opened up near out hotel recently, so we made a beeline for that. Though small in size, it made up for it in scope, with vendors hawking everything from fresh peaches and cherries to homemade salsa and crepes. We picked up a wonderfully sweet and spicy chipotle mustard while we were down there.

When noon rolled around and it was time for Genevieve to head to her conference, I took my cue and headed out to explore the town. That morning, I'd picked up a culinary road map from the Sunday paper. It laid out of the various districts in town the Barrio Logan, the Asian District, Little Italty, etc. First up was the Barrio for lunch. Now, here's what they don't tell you in the map. The Barrio is unoffically divided into two parts, separated by a highway. The first part was o-kay, certainly not great, but decent enough. The second part (where, granted, I did end up picking up a damn good torta al pastor) was..well, sketchy. As in, I can now say I've seen a 16 year old kid standing by the side of the road holding a semi-automatic. So, yea.....
After that, I decided to head up to a neighborhood on El Canjon Rd. which claimed to be "eclectic." Granted, it was. Mexican joints faced off against Thai restaurants and fast food chains crowded for space. That said, I just wasn't that wow'ed by it. And the whole district being run through by a highway didn't make it any more appealing. So, without stopping (but succeeding in getting lost nonetheless), I headed up to the Asian District. Placed almost in complete contrast to the Barrio, the Asian district was..well, not what I expected. It was all..strip malls. Filled with placed like Tofu Palace and Ed Tsi's merchandise. Chinese kids hung out at bubble tea shops, talking loudly in thick surfer/California lingo. The grocery store was an oasis of calm for me though. Imagine the Asian Plaza in Cleveland, except well organized, clean, friendly & lacking any sort of funky smell. I wandered around there for longer than I probably needed to, especially since I didn't actually buy anything, just to take a break from my run around.

After recharging my batteries, I decided to give the Barrio one more chance. I drove around it more, looked into side streets and off the path stores. Here's where I discovered the real gold mines. On 21st and Imperial, I was drawn in by a large building named "the San Diego Farmer's Market". The name was a bit of a misnomer though, as I was unable to find a single farmer's stand in there. What I did find, instead, were, hidden among the stands hawking cheap sunglasses and bootleg DVD's, a fresh tortilla stand, and next to that, a row of small eateries, each one breathing out the smells of cooking salsa onions, garlic, and most of all..chilis. I was really beginning to regret my previous lunch choices. But, we're still here for a bit, I'll be back. The crowd was a mix. Well dressed men (all Mexican, through all my trips into the barrio, I was the only gringo), fresh from church, mingled with urban tough gangster types. But, though the building was a bit decrepit, it felt good there. I also found a nearby mercado which was fun (and I picked up a few food items), but more memorable for the older woman selling fresh tamales outside, which threatened to break my already full stomach. After the barrio, I tried to find the local Philipino district to no avail. Thank you map-with-no-directions! I'm finally back in the hotel now. A full hour before Genevieve is set to return, but I just really needed the break.

And, oh, I saw Ron Jeremy in the lobby!!

Sunday- Dinner
Dinner tonight was at Millie Fleur (hope I got that spelling right), a French restaurant in a posh 'burb north of San Diego. And I don't mean Cleveland posh. I mean, we saw houses the realtor in town had postered to his windows and we're talking 30million dollar homes, and up! I have to admit, this got me a bit tense about dinner. After all, I am not exactly up to snuff with millionaire Californians and snubbed is something no one wants to be, especially on vacation. As it turns out, the restaurant, though definitely classy, was not snobby. Even as the poor relation, we got the same excellent treatment everyone else did. Bonus points there. We started things out with a half bottle of a chardonnay from the Schug Winery ( It was a very sweet white and worked well with Genevieve's meal of pasta (not so we well with my braised skate, but I'm getting ahead of myself here).

Genevieve started her meal out with white asparagus in a honey glaze. I was still pretty full from my day, so I didn't get anything to start with. I did try Genevieve's dish though. I'd never had white asparagus before and, having had it, I'm of two minds on it. On one hand, it's subdued flavors were a nice change from the normal sulfery quality of green asparagus. On the other, they also lacked the hit of flavor you get with green. So, though it was perhaps more "refined", I didn't actually feel it to be better, just different. Then, the main courses, which I mentioned above, came out. My skate was delicious. Served with a saffron cream sauce and a topped with calamata olives (the saltiness of the olives really did wonders for the fish), it was creamy and decadent. Genevieve's pasta with gruyere cheese was equally good. We finished the meal off with a dessert. Myself with a flourless chocolate & hazelnut torte and Genevieve with a three layer mousse. My torte was good, but the coursely chopped nuts interrupted the silken texture of the torte, which could have done better with the nuts perhaps topping it instead of mixed in. The mousse, on the other hand, left no room for improvement and was awesome.

Monday- morning
I just got back from my half hour trek to find a non-Starbucks cup of coffee. Just to clear something up now, I don't dislike Starbucks because they are hip and trendy, or in a vain attempt to seem anti-establishment. I don't like them because, well, call me crazy, but I don't care to spend $3.00 on a large (grande , my ass) cup of coffee that tastes like burnt-ass. Let's recap Starbucks - expensive coffee which tastes like shit. Oh yea, give me some of that. Though I have to admit, the fact I passed 4 (5, including the stand in our hotel) Starbucks on my way to find ONE regular cup of joe did cross my mind.
Anyways, I ended up reaching my goal. Does it taste great? Well, not great, better than Starbucks. But it's decent enough and cost me $1.50 for a large, so my sense of "right" remains intact.

Monday- lunch
Well, the first part of our day turned out to be a bit of a bust. Our original plan was to rent some bikes and head around town. This ended up getting nixed when we discovered the closest place to rent bikes priced them at $24.00 a day, each, and supplied some pretty substandard fare. (My bike needed it's chain rethreaded before I even left the parking lot.) Next up was to head to Balboa Park, but by the time we got out there, we decided it wasn't really wanted to do and headed back. By this time, we were both damn hungry. Deciding that we weren't going to make the day worse by stopping in any old dive, we headed to one of the places we'd chosen for the trip, El Agave. The restaurant, located in the very picturesque Old San Diego area, would have perhaps looked cheesy any other place than Southern California, with it's stucko walls and desert plants sprouting from every corner. But, here, it fit. Before coming here, were found out that there were two things this restaurant specialized in moles and tequila. Well, we got neither. Instead, Genevieve got a plate of quesadillas and I picked up a Enchilladas Verde (enchilladas with a tomatilla salsa, topped with queso fresco and fresh cream). Though it may sound a bit heavy, it was suprisingly light, with cheese used only sparingly and instead relying on the salsa to carry the flavors of the dish. Good choice. The tequila I avoided because, honestly, there was soo much to choose. Their list contained over 80 different bottles of tequila and, even if I did get one, I don't believe my untrailed pallette would be able to fully appreciate it. After lunch, feeling refreshed, we headed to the Hillcrest District, which I'd seen previously on my travels through town. The area, a bustling shopping district for nearby college students, was filled with hip clothing, book & record shops. Most of which bearing the California price markup which we were starting to come to grips with. That said, Genevieve still had no plans to spend $100 on a pair of poorly made shoes for a convention party tomorrow. I ended up picking up some ethereral (re pansy) goth stuff though. I have to say, even if I don't listen to it as much anymore, I still get a smile seeing a little indie record store with a goth & industrial section, like the ones which used to make my heart jump as a little goth boy. Granted, most of the stuff there now I'd place in the dance & techno category, but maybe I'm just old. (After all, both the cd's I picked up were on a label which went out of business years ago).

After a bit more conferencing on Genevie've part, we headed out again , this time to La Jolla, more specifically, to La Jolla cove, a beautiful stretch of coastline just north of San Diego. Walking along that, I saw my first , in the wild, seals. They were laid out on the beach, sleeping. About 20 or more of them. This was apparently a pretty common occurance, as the area was premarked with good old "Don't feed the marine life" signs and a viewing decks.

Monday - Dinner
Dinner tonight was at a nearby indian restaurant (one of many) called Monsoon. We ended up opting for the buffet. The food was standard Northern Indian Fare, nothing too spectacular, except for two things one, a banana curry. It sounds weird, I know, but it was actually very good. The second thing was their desserts. Sure, they had rice pudding, but their others offerings were a Mango Mousse (good, but perhaps not all I'd hyped myself that it would be upon first seeing it) and a cream cheese dish call srikung, which was excellent.

Tuesday- lunch
"I'm a wanderer. I wander round and round and.."
Genevieve's conference sessions were on and off again today, with one being seperated by a scant hour or so until the next. Because of this, I really didn't have a chance to wander too far out of the San Diego downtown area. So, I just bummed around aimlessly. Grabbed a Pastor Porter at the local Karl Strauss brewery (not very good, though it had the bitter porter taste I love, it lacked any sort of body whatsoever and even tasted a bit flat. I didn't get a second), headed up to Golden Hills district, which seemed to be a middle class residental area. Not bad at all.

Then I headed back to ye olde Barrio to grab lunch for Genevieve and I. Originally, I'd planned to grab something at the San Diego "Farmer's Market" and, for me, there would have been no problems. But, I don't know the Spanish for mushroom, or "do your beans have lard?" or really anything beyond "no carne, frijoles!" and, with the throng of people which can turned up there for lunch, I didn't feel like trying to cross the language barrier. Instead, I headed back to where I'd grabbed lunch before Porkyland (don't laugh, the name might be silly, but the place seemed to be the haven for many a Mexican family, both middle class and poor), since they had a vegetarian menu I had faith in. Not knowing what she'd like, I picked her up an order or tostadas, quesadillas & a sweet tamale. All of which set me back a whole $5.00. I didn't have any of it, though Genevieve seemed to like it, except for the sweet tamale (filled with raisins, pineapple & sweetened with a berry juice, I loved it, but Genevieve found it to be too bland and dry). For myself, I picked up some pork tamales from the tamale stand that tempted me so much earlier. The stand was simply labeled "tamales" and was manned by an old Mexican woman, offering fresh homemade tamales from her steam cart. They were, hands down, the best tamales I've ever had. The imperfections in their preparation (the corn husks occasionally dipped into the cornmeal, splitting tha tamale and making things a little messier than necessary) didn't bother me. At least I knew I wasn't eating some factory produced tamales (to which Genevieve pointed out "yea, I'm sure that old lady is part of some big corporation." I guess she's right, a shabby stand by the roadside isn't exactly up with the high rollers). After lunch and she returned to her class, I wandered aimlessly a bit more, stopping at a local Whole Foods store to pick up some soyrizo ( which seemed kind of silly afterwards, since we can get it down in Kent) and a local brew, the Xtra Pale Ale, from AleSmith Brewery. Unlike the porter from earlier in the day, the Alesmith Ale was freggin' awesome. Crisp and refreshing, but with tones of caramel, it was a perfect summer (or California, anyday ;) brew.
Once the conference was done for the day, Genevieve and I, camera in hand this time, headed back up to La Jolla to take pictures. On the way back, we returned once again to Hillcrest, this time for dinner. After scanning the multitude of (though 75% of them were Asian) restaurants in town, we decided on this hip little bistro & wine bar called Crush. Their food was offered tapas-style, which we'd not had since Mojo closed down. They also offered a almost tapas-style wine item called "Flights". A Flight was a selection of three wines, each 2oz. So, you basically got the volume equivilent of one glass of wine, but have a chance to try three in the process. I tried an "International Red" flight (featuring wines from South Africa, Spain & Australia), Genevieve picked up an "International White" flight (featuring wines from Italy, France & Spain). For wine novices like ourselves, this was an awesome idea. The wine were excellent selections as well. Though Genevieve's French wine and my Austrialian Grenache were not very appealing, my Spanish Rioja and Genevieve's Italanian Pino Grigio balanced things out.

For dinner, here's the dish (pun intended). I started things out with a pecan crusted goat cheese salad w/ raisins. The warm goat cheese worked on a supernatural level with the raisins and basalmic enchanced salad greens. Simple, yet excellent. The second part of my meal was a dish of gorgonzola stuffed dates . This dish turned on all sorts of culinary lightbulbs in my head. Not only did the stuffed dates idea, which I would have never thought of, work so well, but the end result was so well prepared at the pungent cheese didn't fight with the sweet dates in any way. The marriage was perfect in taste and prepartion. Re this all means that this is something I'll be trying at home ;) Genevieve started things out with spring rolls served with a ginger-peanut dipping sauce. Her second dish was their vegetarian special - penne pasta w/ sundried tomatoes, pesto, goat cheese & toasted pine nuts. The latter was excellent, but well within my culinary skills, so not quite as impressive as the stuffed dates.

Wednesday - breakfast
Our last day in San Diego. We're at the airport now, early, waiting for the plane. It's been a great trip and neither of us are ready to go back. It's been 5 days of fair, sunny weather and the prospect of returning to gray, drab (everything seems so vibrant here) Cleveland is none too appealing. This morning we grabbed breakfast at a small cafe/coffeehouse just a block or so from our hotel. It reminded me of Phoenix coffeehouse back in Cleveland. Not a chain or corporation, but not too far removed either. Maybe it was just the Torani syrups, who knows. Anyways, I picked up a sundried tomato bagel w/ cream cheese, tomatoes & pesto, which was very good. Note it must be the weather, tomatoes are way more in season here than in Cleveland. The ones that topped my bagel were bright red and tasty, unlike the pale flavorless stuff going around back home now. Genevieve picked up a vegetarian breakfast burrito, served with a side of salsa. The burrito was good, but the salsa was obviously from a bottle, which left something to be desired. After eating, we took a brief last walk around the Gaslamp district, said goodbye to the sites we'd become familiar with over this week , and headed out to the airport. And that brings us to now.....